How families are keeping Halloween from turning into a COVID nightmare

Left: Josia Schindler poses as a soccer referee beside sister Nora Schindler, dressed as a “newsie,” for Halloween in 2018. (Jamie Beth Cohen) Right: Sophia Knight, Alice Johnson, Lydia Knight and Charlotte Johnson celebrate Halloween in 2016. (Jody Allard)

DENVER — For Laura Stoutingburg and her family, Halloween has always been a monthlong celebration of corn mazes, pumpkin patches and, of course, trick-or-treating in their suburban Denver neighborhood.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the mother of two to change their plans.

“Traditional trick-or-treating house to house does not feel like a smart choice to me this year,” Stoutingburg said.

Families across the nation are haunted by the same dilemma: How can they safely keep the pandemic from overshadowing Halloween? Can families trick-or-treat and go to haunted houses, or should they opt for lower-risk activities at home?

Health experts say families should err on the side of caution when it comes to trick-or-treating and other traditional fall activities. Much depends on each family’s comfort with taking risks and ensuring they adhere to safety standards and common sense, they said. Masks should be worn by all, even if not part of a costume.

“My kids love going to the farm … to go pumpkin-picking, apple-picking and all those things we do in the fall,” said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a professor of pediatrics and an associate epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But, he added, “if you show up at the pumpkin patch and it’s packed with people, that’s not the right time for you to be there.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released Halloween guidelines that warn against high-risk activities like traditional trick-or-treating, haunted houses and costume parties, as well as hay and tractor rides, among other things. The federal agency is also clear on the need for social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing to continue.

Many parents are coming up with creative alternatives for Halloween night. For Stoutingburg, 30, that means hosting a small sleepover with relatives that features pumpkin-carving, cupcake-decorating and a scavenger hunt.

Jody Allard and her family also will forgo their usual tricks and treats. Allard, 42, lives in Seattle and has a rare genetic disease putting her at higher risk for COVID-19. The mother of seven said her family will make new traditions this year.

“We’re going to make a bunch of different fun foods from the Halloween shows they like to watch on the Food Network, and we’re going to watch kid-friendly Halloween movies,” Allard said.

In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 44-year-old writer Jamie Beth Cohen’s daughter came up with the idea that she and her brother dress up in costumes and trick-or-treat inside their own home, with their parents behind the doors of various rooms, waiting with candy.

“She’s excited to wear a costume without a jacket and get lots of the kind of candy she likes,” Cohen said.

Maya Brown-Zimmerman and her family of six never miss out on trick-or-treating in Cleveland. But they will this year, with Brown-Zimmerman, 35, at higher risk for COVID-19 because of multiple lung diseases. Instead, her family will use their costume money on new Halloween decor, and her four kids, ages 3 to 11, will search for candy at home.

“I’ll hide eggs of candy in the front yard for my little kids,” she said. “After they go to bed, the older kids will have a hunt for eggs in the dark in our backyard with flashlights.”

For families still hoping to trick-or-treat this year, though, what can be done to stay as safe as possible?

The Harvard Global Health Institute created a website to help parents assess their risk level for Halloween activities with a color-coded map of county COVID data. It shows which counties are “lower-risk” zones for COVID (green and yellow), where parents might feel more comfortable allowing their children to trick-or-treat, and which are higher-risk areas (orange and red), where online parties and very small gatherings are recommended instead.

Milstone said families should think less in terms of green versus red zones and more in terms of staying safe no matter what, especially considering asymptomatic carriers.

“Rather than people getting a false sense of security that ‘My area is a low-risk area, so I’m just gonna go and do whatever,’ I would say ideally everyone practices the same safe things,” he said.

Dr. Heather Isaacson, a pediatrician with UCHealth in Longmont, Colorado, said masks must be worn by all and has a simple suggestion for the reluctant: “Decorate those masks and incorporate them into the costumes.”

People who hand out candy also should wear masks, added Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatrician and co-host of the “Nova” and PBS Digital Studios show “Parentalogic.” If trick-or-treaters see candy-givers without masks, he suggested wishing them a “Happy Halloween” and passing them by for the next home.

“If people are outside serving candy without a mask, consider the added risk of potential respiratory droplets flying around, including in the candy bowl,” said Patel.

When it comes to handing out candy, it’s a good idea to maintain as much distance as possible.

“Think outside of the box with ideas like a reverse trick-or-treating, where kids stay home and dress up and neighbors do a parade and throw candy,” said Isaacson. She also recommended creating individual goody bags in place of bowls of treats.

“You could go all out and make candy chutes or a giant spider web with candy trapped in it. In some ways, the physically distanced candy-delivery ideas sound more fun,” said Patel.

As for the candy itself, Milstone isn’t as concerned about wrappers as about hand-washing. The primary message is, “Don’t let your kid eat candy with dirty hands,” he said. That means no eating candy until they’re able to get home to wash properly.

While you could technically sanitize wrappers, said Dr. Rita Nasseri, a Los Angeles physician and mother of three, “the safest solution is to buy your own candy and give your children that as a treat.”

As for teens, who may want more independence, Dr. Sam Dominguez, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases and medical director of the microbiology lab at Children’s Hospital Colorado, recommended that small groups of friends get together outside and carve pumpkins or watch a projected movie — while wearing masks, of course.

Nasseri advised something similar, adding that food served buffet-style and communal candy should be avoided.

In Boone County, Missouri, currently experiencing a rapid uptick in COVID-19 cases, Karina Koji said her family will stay home on Halloween night. They plan to dress up in costumes and face masks and give out bags of individually wrapped candies. They’ll also leave candy bags in the driveway for anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable coming up to the door.

“We shouldn’t let the pandemic take Halloween from us,” said Koji, 45. “We’ve all had to give up so much. It’s entirely possible to celebrate this fun holiday while staying healthy and keeping ourselves and others safe.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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